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These Aren't GDP Futures You're Trading

That the stock market and the economy should confirm each another, with stocks perhaps leading, is one of those truths we hold to be self-evident. But all markets are not created equal.

I devote a lot of attention to linkages and causal relationships between markets, as well I should; the information content in a market that behaves as expected is quite low. We learn of impending changes only by studying why the truths we held to be self-evident were in fact not, and by incorporating into our models and thought processes the information gleaned from previously unnoticed relationships.

It's a humbling task and quite possibly condemned to permanent frustration. George Bernard Shaw stated, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." We can update this to trading and market analysis:

Winners have no incentive to refine their analysis; losers study their past mistakes. All financial theory, therefore, is derived from the backward-looking attempts of unsuccessful traders to avoid the recurrence of an event within a situation that will never again exist.

All of this windup is to address three related developments at the end of the past week. The first was the declaration by the National Bureau of Economic Research that the recession ended in November 2001 -- a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, to be sure, but one that I will accept out of lack of a convincing argument otherwise. To return to Ronald Reagan's query, are you better off now than you were in November 2001? Many cannot answer in the affirmative.

The second was that the smoothed growth rate of the Economic Cycle Research Institute's weekly leading index rose to its highest level since May 1987. ECRI's Anirvan Banerji, a RealMoney.com contributor, noted that it has been driven higher by "soaring growth in money supply plus mutual funds and near-record highs in mortgage applications for purchases."

With all respect to ECRI, please consider that both money supply and the mortgage industry have been distorted by the Fed's rate-cutting actions, and as a result, their roles within the economy of 2003 are likely to be quite different from the past. I'd feel differently if the money supply were rising from a surge in commercial and industrial loans or if the rise in mortgage applications was driven by a surge in personal income.

The third was an email from a RealMoney reader who asked, "How much can stocks go down while the economy is going up? Do present-day investors have a lack of experience with a market-down, economy-up disconnect?"

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